Review: Red Velvet (Chicago Shakespeare Theater)

| December 11, 2017

Dion Johnstone, Greg Matthew Anderson, Jürgen Hooper, Bri Sudia and Tiffany Renee Johnson star in Red Velvet            


Red Velvet
Written by Lolita Chakrabarti
Chicago Shakespeare at Navy Pier (map)
thru Jan 21  |  tix: $48-$88  |  more info
Check for half-price tickets    


Stellar leading man propels this beautifully done sad-but-true story


Dion Johnstone, Greg Matthew Anderson, Jürgen Hooper, Bri Sudia and Tiffany Renee Johnson star in Red Velvet

Chicago Shakespeare Theater presents
Red Velvet

Review by Lauren Whalen

Ira Aldridge was ready to take over the world, one stage at a time. Unfortunately, the world was not quite ready for Ira Aldridge. In 1833, the American actor caused much controversy on London’s West End for his portrayal of the title character in Shakespeare’s Othello. The critics of London reacted poorly to seeing a black man play the Moor, and consequently the production closed after Aldridge performed only twice. The actor went on Dion Johnstone and Greg Matthew Anderson star as Ira Aldridge  and Pierre LaPorte in Red Velvet at  Chicago Shakespeareto have a stellar career, touring Europe and Russia as Shylock, Macbeth and King Lear, though he often did the roles in whiteface, and he never acted in London again. Red Velvet chronicles Aldridge’s groundbreaking but ill-timed two-day run as Othello at Covent Garden, the walls he shattered, and the obstacles he faced his entire career.

Red Velvet opens with Aldridge (Dion Johnstone) preparing to play King Lear in Poland. Curious young reporter Halina (Annie Purcell, who also plays Aldridge’s first wife, Margaret) has connived her way into his dressing room, much to the older actor’s chagrin. Reluctantly, he begins to tell her the story of his short run as Othello in London, thirty years before. After legendary actor Edmund Kean collapsed onstage, Kean’s son Charles (Michael Hayden) expects he’ll take over the role. Director and theater manager Pierre LaPorte (Greg Matthew Anderson), no stranger to scandal, has other ideas: his friend Ira Aldridge, who’s played Othello previously in a much smaller production and is ready to go. Not only is Aldridge black and American, his intense, physical style of acting differs greatly from the “teapot school”, which emphasizes presentation and grand gesturing, popular at the time. Aldridge faces opposition from Kean and other actors, though he’s a quick favorite of actress Ellen Tree (Chaon Cross) who not only plays Desdemona but is also engaged to Charles Kean. At the very same time, poetically enough, British Parliament is debating whether to end slavery.

Dion Johnstone and Chaon Cross star as Ira Aldridge and Ellen Tree in Red Velvet, Chicago Shakespeare TheaterDion Johnstone stars as Ira Aldridge in Red Velvet, Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Referring to a stage curtain, Red Velvet profiles a fascinating but little-known bit of theater history. Aldridge was born free in New York, but faced considerable opposition from day one. Almost no one, including his own parents, thought black people had a place in theater, especially in Shakespeare. Lolita Chakrabati’s script portrays Aldridge as confident, almost brash, which in turn makes his fellow actors even more nervous. He cares deeply about his work and feels a more intimate approach to Othello is correct. In later years, he’s self-important and jaded, but takes his career seriously and retains his reverence for the Bard. Red Velvet has an incredibly long first act with lots of exposition, and probably 15 to 20 minutes could be cut with little detriment to the play. The second act, however, is near-perfect, giving the audience even more insight into Aldridge’s toughness, vulnerability and true, undeniable talent.

As always, Chicago Shakespeare Theater casts the best and brightest from around the world. Everyone is well-suited to their roles, particularly Cross as Ellen Tree, an actress who’s broken quite a few barriers in her career and is delighted and intrigued by Aldridge’s dedication and charisma. However, Johnstone is head and shoulders above everyone, and his return to Chicago Shakes (after appearing as Marc Antony in Julius Caesar and Helicanus in Pericles, in 2013 and 2014 respectively) is nothing short of triumphant. His Aldridge is intelligent, bullheaded and dynamic – as nuanced as Othello and just as fascinating. With a sad-but-true story and a stellar leading man, Red Velvet is deeply thought-provoking and utterly memorable.

Rating: ★★★½

Red Velvet continues through January 21st at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand (map), with performances.  Tickets are $48-$88 ($20 tickets for patrons under 35), and are available by phone (312-595-5600) or online through their website (check for availability of half-price tickets). More information at time: 2 hours 30 minutes, includes an intermission)

Dion Johnstone and Greg Matthew Anderson star as Ira Aldridge  and Pierre LaPorte in Red Velvet, Chicago Shakespeare

Photos by Liz Lauren 




Annie Purcell (Halina, Margaret Aldridge), Jürgen Hooper (Casimir, Henry Forester), Roderick Peeples (Terence, Bernard Ward), Dion Johnstone (Ira Aldridge), Tiffany Renee Johnson (Connie), Bri Sudia (Betty Lovell), Michael Hayden (Charles Kean), Chaon Cross (Ellen Tree), Greg Matthew Anderson (Pierre LaPorte)

Understudies: Luke Daigle, Brandon Greenhouse, Sasha Kostryko, Jeff Parker, Andrew Rathgeber, Eliza Stoughton, Candace Thomas

behind the scenes

Gary Griffin (director), Deborah Acker (production stage manager), Kevin Gregory Dwyer (stage manager, beginning January 9), Sammy Brown (assistant stage manager), Scott Davis (scenic design), Mara Blumenfeld (costume design), Christine Binder (lighting design), Christopher Kriz (sound design), David Woolley (fight choreographer), Jenny Giering (original music), Eva Breneman (dialect coach), Richard Jarvie (wig, makeup design), Bob Mason (casting), Tyrone Phillips (associate director), Liz Lauren (photos)


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Category: 2017 Reviews, Chicago Shakespeare, Drama, Lauren Whalen, Navy Pier, Video, YouTube

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